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Open letter to Forest Hills Public Schools superintendent from equity leaders, parents and alumni

In response to students from Forest Hills Central bringing a Betsy Ross flag and Trump political banner to a football game at Houseman Field against Ottawa Hills, many parents and leaders are calling for educational institutions to provide more critical thinking around issues of systemic racism.
Jeremy Moore speaking at Equity Drinks

Jeremy Moore speaking at Equity Drinks /Katy Batdorff

Underwriting support from:
Equity Drinks event at The Meanwhile

Equity Drinks event at The Meanwhile /Katy Batdorff

Community members at Equity Drinks event

Community members at Equity Drinks event /Katy Batdorff

Dear Superintendent Daniel Behm & the Forest Hills Board of Education:
Mary Vonck
Martha Atwater
Susan Lenhardt
Walter F. Perschbacher III
Suzanne Callahan
Michael Seekell
Douglas Josephson

It is with great concern that we write you regarding the incident that took place at the Ottawa Hills v. Forest Hills Central football game at Houseman Field on September 9, 2016, as described in MLive and from personal accounts such as those by Matthew Patulski. Several students, under the auspices of a “Red, White and Blue” day actively campaigned for Trump and displayed the Betsy Ross US flag. We take very serious issue with the rhetoric displayed by many of your students during this game. We hope that Forest Hills Public Schools will use this as an opportunity to advance healing. It is an opportunity to demonstrate how a mostly white, affluent school district can both allow political speech, while at the same time impart on its student body critical thinking skills about systemic racism, institutional insight on how Forest Hills even came to be so mostly white v. a district like GRPS, historic and current segregation and why an incident like this is problematic.

To be clear, we have no issue with political speech during the game. I know many are concerned about the hospitableness of such a display, but political speech has always been part of large assemblies. I hope that as a prominent educational institution you do not curb the desire on the part of your students to express their political beliefs. Students should be free to make political statements and encouraged to do so by educational institutions. 

The issue is with the definition of political speech and the role that Forest Hills Public Schools would play in legitimizing hateful, racist activity. Donald Trump is not a typical candidate. He is a powerful person who is recommending hateful policy and saying hateful things that directly connect to well over half of your student body. Pairing Trump with a symbol, such as the Betsy Ross US flag (often seen as a white supremacist flag) with the timing of participating in a game between an affluent, mostly white school and a minority-majority school is a blatantly hateful communication. Some things that Trump is saying and advocating for include:

Racist, Anti-Mexican and Muslim immigration remarks

“I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me. Believe me. And I’ll build it very inexpensively. I’ll build a great, great wall on our southern boarder and I will have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.” – Donald Trump


“When Mexico sends it people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, and I assume, are good people.” – Donald Trump


“Donald J Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States, until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” – Donald Trump

Supporting Sexism

“I mean, we could say politically correct that look doesn’t matter, but the look obviously matters…like you wouldn’t have your job if you weren’t beautiful.” – Donald Trump


“If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?” – Donald Trump


“Does everybody know that pig named Rosie O’Donnell? She’s a disgusting pig, right?” – Donald Trump

Making fun of people with disabilities

“Now the poor guy – you oughta see this guy [imitating a disabled reporter]… ‘ah I don’t know what I said, ah I don’t remember.” – Donald Trump

We point out this hateful rhetoric from Trump understanding that the majority of people in the stands of that game were likely made up of women, Latino/Latinas, Muslims, immigrants, and people with disabilities. Furthermore, the people who walk the halls of Forest Hills Public Schools and Grand Rapids Public Schools are likely made up of majority women, Latino/Latinas, Muslims, and people with disabilities. While we appreciate the apology made by Forest Hills Public Schools Superintendent Behm, and the recognition of the pain and hurt that was caused, our question becomes how does Forest Hills Public Schools and Ottawa Hills move forward? Specifically, how does the district advance in a way that is transparent, and focused on the pain caused by this incident, but also uses this as an opportunity to point to the systemic disparities that exist in our communities?

Your principles of Diversity and Inclusiveness indicate that you believe in:

• helping students value their unique talents and gifts

• knowing, understanding and appreciating each other

• valuing individual differences

• celebrating our heritage

• healing racism

• embracing differences to enrich, strengthen and connect our community

• striving for equity

• considering all viewpoints to arrive at better decisions

We find it impossible to uncritically examine what happened on September 9th, make no concrete, actionable steps toward healing or changing the conditions under which this happened and still maintain that Forest Hills Public Schools believes in these principles. 

Furthermore, as it has been said in a recent Rapidian article written regarding this issue this wasn’t just an isolated incident. Our communities are built on segregation and are designed to produce a racialized educational outcome. The demographic makeup of Forest Hills and Ottawa Hills were created by housing policies, disparate access to capital, individualized and systemic racism in how public goods were distributed and urban planning. 

So these hurtful acts do not just emerge from nowhere, they emerge from conditions. These conditions may not have been directly caused by these students, or their parents, or Forest Hills Public Schools. However, to ignore that your students are a product of these conditions and were publicly advocating to advance that divide from an already privileged position seems contrary to your inclusion values. It created both a harm to the people who did not benefit from history (students of color from Ottawa Hills in this case) but also an opportunity to support the creation of a stronger collective understanding of our shared history.

We see this as an unprecedented time. We see this as an opportunity for white, affluent school districts such as Forest Hills Public Schools to demonstrate true leadership as an example to other affluent school districts regionally, and across the state and country, to condemn hateful rhetoric and advance critical thinking skills. Therefore, we call upon Forest Hills Public Schools to take this opportunity to truly advance your beliefs in diversity, inclusiveness, healing and equity.

I am part of larger networks involved in racial equity including the Grand Rapids Racial Equity Network and Equity Drinks. Through social media, network channels and our last event on September 15th attended by many leaders in the community, we asked “what would next steps look like for Forest Hills Public Schools to begin to heal this situation, long-term?” We proposed that recommendations would fall with the below value guidelines:

We recommend any approach maintains the following values

  • Positions perspectives of people of color and historically marginalized people as the elevated voice
  • The focus is not simply historically marginalized individuals educating white students
  • Provides tools to develop critical thinking about why events like what happened at the FHC v. Ottawa Hills football game is problematic
  • Is public
  • Is long term
  • Focuses on relationship building at a systemic level
  • Is not charitable, but honest about power and material histories and justice

As a result, the following are the summarized and synthesized recommendations provided by equity leadership in the Grand Rapids community. This is not fully representative of the entire community, but it is a sample of recommendations from diverse groups that are working around issues of racial, LGBT, gender and other forms of equity in our community. We hope you will consider these recommendations seriously. We are hopeful to see a district like Forest Hills Public Schools find a way to truly advance healing instead of allowing an insider vs. outsider mentality to emerge in the district. Such a student body and parent response would interfere with any ability to change clearly disparate educational outcomes across the community.

Recommendations to advance healing providing by equity leaders in the community

  • Promote healing: Providing facilitated space by an equity-trained neutral party and ample time to actively listen without interruption, reaction, or judgment to the thoughts and reactions of a number of Ottawa Hills High students, parents, and spectators who were present at the game. Also, providing space and ample time to actively listen, without interruption, reaction, or judgment to the thoughts of people of color and immigrants on the candidacy of Mr. Trump and how it has affected them. Preferably in spaces most conducive to the comfort of those who are telling their story, and not necessarily in Forest Hills Public Schools.
  • Pledge Anti-racism: Pledge to be an anti-racism institution. Organizations such as the Partners for a Racism Free Community or the National Equity Project can support genuine efforts on the part of your district to truly combat racism according to your principles of diversity and inclusiveness.
  • Equity lens in institutional culture:  Conduct a thorough review of curriculums to ensure that history, humanities, English, and other liberal arts classes maintain an equity lens. This would include ensuring that these subjects are taught by a diversity of teachers. The difference between individual, institutional and systemic racism is taught. That national and historical discourse on issues of racial, LGBT, and gender equity are thoroughly explored, and the material, political and economic history of marginalized populations are also rigorously explored. Also that diverse local histories and cultures such as the story of Auburn Hills, A City within a City and the Grand Rapids People’s Project are included in the curriculums as well, including specific content on why disparities exist between more affluent schools like Forest Hills Public Schools and inner-city schools. Some helpful references for review of curriculums and other resources may include the Hispanic Center of West Michigan, LINC, Grand Rapids Urban League, Islamic Center of West Michigan, Greater Grand Rapids Racial Equity Network, Kutsche Office of Local History at GVSU and the Grand Rapids Women’s History Center.
  • Securing outside support for institutional perspective building: Forest Hills Public Schools engage with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Program. SPL has published a report on the negative impact of the Trump campaign on young people – the fears and trauma children of color and immigrant children are experiencing from hearing Trump’s anti-immigrant and bullying comments. The report also describes how Trump’s rhetoric has emboldened and legitimized bullying behavior on the part of young people. The current issue of the Teaching Tolerance Magazine includes specific ideas about how educators can teach about the presidential election in the most helpful way possible – without legitimizing the misogyny, racism, and bullying approach of the Trump campaign. Furthermore, implement faculty, administration and board instruction such as Blue Eyed for perspective building, and the Model Student Assistant Program to protect the kids who exist in the system as an oppressed and silent group (those who are afraid to speak out because of the status quo).
  • Publicly report on your progress:  Measure your progress using a third party and publicly report your progress in your efforts to advance equity in the Forest Hills Public Schools district. 
  • Emphasize Martin Luther King Day: It was noticed that Forest Hills Public Schools does not recognize Martin Luther King Day as a holiday, or specifically use that as a learning opportunity. It is recommended that a deliberate approach to this holiday is taken as an opportunity for your students to learn about this important national historical figure. It is also recommended you center cultures and groups given designated months within district materials and activities as a way of recognizing the histories of traditionally marginalized groups.
  • Publish impact of segregation:  We also recommend that Forest Hills Public Schools work with outlying school districts and other academic and community based organizations to explore and public the impact of segregation in Grand Rapids and its outlying areas. Segregation in Grand Rapids is readily apparent and, working together, educational institutions are positioned to consider approaches to ensuring that ALL of our children receive a strong education to prepare for their future – which would be good for the entire community. 

We fear that if no one takes this on that Forest Hills Public Schools will be on the wrong side of history. Instead of producing leaders working toward the good of our society by condemning the worst ills of society, you will create an impediment to developing good leadership by using “education” as a cover for unchecked privilege, affluence and racism. In this case the alma mater of so many of us will continue to be part of the problem rather than the solution. However, to take on these recommendations would be powerful and, we believe, lead to Forest Hills Public Schools being seen not only as an affluent district, but one that is truly working to advance inclusion and diversity principles within its own walls. We believe the product resulting from these recommendations would be stronger, more prepared leaders for a more diverse world. 

Many of us would be happy to meet with you and discuss productive solutions for each of these recommendations. Many signing this letter are leaders in this community around issue of social equity, inclusion, diversity and maintain connections to resources at a local and national level. It is not a matter of resources. Many resources are available to help your administration think through a thoughtful, deliberate and powerful response that will advance Forest Hills Public Schools as a leader in its purported equity beliefs. It is instead a matter of the will of a prominent institution such as Forest Hills Public Schools to assert itself as a true leader in inclusion and diversity

If you have any questions please feel free to email Jeremy Moore at [email protected].



Jeremy Moore (FHN ’94)

And father of a GRPS student who was at the September 9 game


Also supported by:

Ken Miguel-Cipriano (City High ’06)

Donna West (GRPS Parent)

Paul Heemstra (13 year GRPS employee, FH graduate, FH parent)

Kari Bergman

Dionne Chivis

Michelle Frederick (FH parent)

Dan Frederick (FHN ’84)

Mykala Supplice (FHN ’14)

Mykal Brandt Troupe (FHE ’12)

Scott Stabler, PhD (FH parent)

Amy Kay Riley-Hekman (GRPS alumni and GRPS parent of 2 OHHS Varsity Athletes)

Lorelei Moore (GRPS parent)

Breannah Alexander

Maureen Kirkwood, (GRPS resident and parent of GRPS alum/OHHS varsity athelete)

Jack Handy (GR resident)

Krys Cardwell

Joanna Rodriguez (GRPS alum and Latina)

Trudy Ngo-Brown (FH parent)

Nancy Richter (FH '90)

Barbara McFall

Juan Daniel Castro (Equity Leader, Latino Community Coalition Steering Committee member)

Jill May

Steven DePolo (GRPS parent)

Lily Schulting (GRPS and FH parent)

Jamon Alexander (GRPS alum and parent)

Karen Tracy (FH alum, GRPS parent)

Chris Holmes

Andrea Beck-Lundskow (FH '95)

Sergio Cira (FH parent)

Connie Rabon (GRPS parent)

Julio Villalobos (Latino Community Coalition)

Wayne Squires (FH grandparent)

Vicki Squires (FH grandparent)

Jorge Gonzalez (GRPS alum)

Omar Flores (Detroit Public School alum, Grand Rapids social worker)

Peggy Vander Meulen (GRPS alum parent)

Cle Jackson, President, NAACP, Greater Grand Rapids Branch

Colleen O'Rourke (GRPS alum, GRPS parent)

Emily Eisen (GRPS parent)

Clark Goodrich (Kentwood resident)

Rev Denise Evans (Equity leader, Kentwood resident)

Erica Curry VanEe (FH alum, GRPS district resident)

Shannon Maisel (GRPS parent)

Mike Soltis (FH parent)

Janay Jorgensen Brower (FH '96)

Lisa Miller Sage (GRPS parent)

Matthew Patulski (GRPS parent)

Darel Ross (Co-Executive Director, LINC)

Jeremy DeRoo (Co-Excutive Director, LINC)

Mindy Ysasi (Latina Network of West Michigan)

Tara Kaley (GRPS parent)

Peter Bradly (GRPS parent)

Janay Jorgensen Brower (FH 96')

Anthony D. Cherette (concerned Grand Rapids resident)

Lucy Joswick (GRPS parent)

Brandy Arnold (Grand Rapids resident)

Karyn Pelon (FH parent)

Daniel Williams (GRPS parent)

Latino Community Coalition Steering Committee

Brett Bradshaw (Equity Coach, National Equity Project)

Rodney Robinson (FH parent)

Celeste Sanchez Lloyd (Grand Rapids resident)

Rene' Fredrich Leitelt (GRPS parent)

Carol Carr (GRPS parent)

Joel Stillerman (GRPS parent)

Mira Krishnan

Joe Jones (President, Grand Rapids Urban League)


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